Stop and search nonchalance from Justice Secretary shows why Scotland needs the Liberal Democrats

Police BrutalityIn January, I wrote about the worryingly high police stop and search figures in Scotland, which is proportionately much higher than in England includes over 500 children under 10 years old.

Now it transpires that these figures may not be accurate. And may be made up. According to the Edinburgh Evening News:

Official figures show a huge number of incidents where stop-and-search powers have been used since the creation of a single police force. Critics claim officers are under pressure because the number of stop-searches has been made a “key performance indicator”.

It came as the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Stephen House, reportedly admitted that “some” stop and searches were “made up” by officers.

Having said that any officer caught falsifying figures would be sacked, he conceded it would be “naive” to think it did not happen, and was quoted as saying: “Well, yeah, some of them are being made up. You’re not suggesting the majority are.”

A total of 529,213 stops and searches was said to have been carried out between April and December last year.

It’s been suggested that one search could be recorded six or even eight times at different stages of the detention procedure and that this artificially inflates the figures to make the Key Performance Indicators look better.

This does not suggest to me that the Police are remotely bothered about civil liberties. I would expect a Justice Secretary to care, though. Sadly, not this Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAsill, whose nonchalance shone through in a Parliamentary Question yesterday. Scottish Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson asked him:

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has said that stop and search is “largely unregulated and unaccountable”. The latest reports suggest that the system is open to all sorts of abuse, from harassment to falsifying the figures. Hundreds and thousands of searches are being carried out each year, and the majority of them are done without any statutory underpinning. The subjects of searches are told little or nothing about their rights. The justice secretary has regularly defended stop and search by citing offensive weapons—he has done so again today—but we know little about what constitutes the positive searches that he uses to justify stop and search. There is a real risk that the detection rates are being manipulated. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is vital that such shortcomings are adequately addressed to ensure that the use of the stop and search tactic is transparent, fair and evidence led?

MacAskill’s reply does not inspire confidence, given that nearly 2/3 of searches are fruitless:

 I do not recognise the world that Ms McInnes paints. It seems to me that the clear outcome of a positive search is where a firearm is discovered. The figure for that is 37 per cent, and the figure for alcohol being taken off youngsters is 37 per cent. The searches have made significant progress and have been successful in making Scotland a safer place in relation to issues that have blighted so much of our country, such as the carrying of offensive weapons. The organisations that are charged with ensuring that the chief constable and those who act under him are held to account are the Scottish Police Authority and HMICS, which are there to provide assistance and guidance. It seems to me that the police have the correct balance, because Scotland is a safer place. Equally, the police appropriately record incidents so that they can be checked as successful or unsuccessful.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in that regard two things are quite clear: first, the proportion of stop and searches that have resulted in a complaint is 0.01 per cent, which is a small number indeed; and, secondly, Scotland is a safer place, because results show that stop and search is bearing fruit and that weapons, drugs and alcohol are being taken off individuals. Scotland is a safer place for that.

Alison McInnes said, after the encounter:

Ensuring that Police Scotland ‘s zeal for stop and search doesn’t cut across young people’s civil liberties is a serious issue deserving of the Justice Secretary’s attention.  And yet today in Parliament we were treated to another helping of his usual swagger. When even the Chief of Scotland’s single police force has admitted that there may be real issues with some stop and searches being falsely recorded it is worrying and frustrating to witness Kenny MacAskill’s nonchalant response.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has said that stop and search is “largely unregulated and unaccountable.” With four times as many stop and searches taking places in Scotland compared to England and Wales, and 500 children under the age of ten being searched it is essential that we know the true extent of this practice.

Liberals are there to protect people from the excesses of the state. If  the Police are going to stop me going about my lawful private business, they should have a good reason, they should do so within their powers and they should properly record the encounter. How can we believe anything the Police say if their own Chief Constable says that their figures can’t be relied upon?

This year’s figures will be interesting. With over half a million searches recorded between April and December last year, if there’s a significant fall, then we’ll have a good idea that the previous figures were, as the Chief Constable suggested, made up. If they don’t fall, then that suggests a hugely disproportionate over-use of the power. Neither is a good look for Scotland’s Police. And until we have a justice secretary who understands the meaning of the word, things are unlikely to change. It’s just as well we have strong liberal voices in the Parliament keeping him on his toes.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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